To Grieve or Move Forward

togrieveormoveforward

Iranian author Gina Nahai asks, “What do you do with a loss you can neither accept, nor overcome, nor leave behind?”

Featured Book: Caspian Rain (MacAdam/Cage, 2008)

In her poignant and heartbreaking novel Caspian Rain, Gina Nahai explores the deep wounds of an Iranian family—a mother, father, and daughter—in the tumultuous decade before the Islamic revolution. The narrator, 12-year-old Yaas, tells the story of her mother Bahar, who grew up in the Jewish slums and through strange circumstances ends up marrying the son of wealthy Iranian Jews. But far from a fantasy romance, the marriage quickly unravels as Bahar is denied her dreams: education, independence, and the opportunity to voice her own opinions. Her husband, as it turns out, married her mainly because he expected she would be quiet and malleable. In a world where it is impossible to shed one’s stigma, both Bahar and then eventually her daughter Yaas, will strive longingly for acceptance.

Why did you want to tell the story of a Jewish woman in your book? Is it something you set out to do as a mission or were you just writing from what you know?

Neither. I don’t feel I’m on a mission to write anything, least of all a novel like Caspian Rain that is so personal and close to the bone. And I didn’t write it because it’s something I know; just because one knows something doesn’t give one license to fill up hundreds of pages. For me, every novel starts with a question—the answer to which I don’t have when I begin the book. I arrive at the answer through the process of writing the story, putting the characters in the kinds of circumstances that evoke the question, and seeing how they react. The question that launched Caspian Rain was one that the narrator, Yaas, actually poses halfway through the book: “What do you do with a loss you can neither accept, nor overcome, nor leave behind?”

Do you consider your book a “Jewish” book or is it a book in which the lead happens to be Jewish?

I think this is a women’s book; it tells the story of hundreds of millions of women living all over the eastern part of the world today. It’s about the limitations and pressures women are subjected to in traditional and religious societies, the way their destinies are for the most part determined from birth. You’ll notice that while Bahar’s parents are observant Jews in the story, her husband and his parents are quite assimilated within the Iranian Muslim society of the time. And yet both Bahar’s and her husband’s life are defined by rules and mores that they challenge at their own peril. Any kind of orthodoxy, whether ethnic or religious, enslaves the believer. It so happens that the rules were written by men and enforced by men at the expense of women’s rights and freedoms.

What inspired you to write your book in the first place? What excited you about the idea?

It’s strange. With my earlier novels, I came upon stories I found marvelous and wrote them because I thought they bore telling. With Caspian Rain, I felt compelled to write the book because I needed to find my own way through some difficult times. I was raised in Iran, but I’ve lived in the West most of my life. I’m not a traditional person, nor am I westernized enough to take certain notions for granted. For years I’ve been caught between two opposing attitudes toward loss: in the West, we refuse to believe that any loss is permanent, or that it can diminish a person in any significant way. There’s great admiration for those who refuse to be knocked down by life’s cruelties, and great disdain for those who can’t or won’t rise from the ashes and press on. This is a positive and productive attitude—the Western sense of optimism. But often, it means that we don’t quite accept our losses; that we develop very short memories, deny our mistakes, or just refuse to look back long enough to understand them.

In the East, on the other hand, loss becomes part of a person’s identity; it’s passed down through generations, spoken about and referred to until it becomes an actual presence. I don’t want to live this way—to accept that every tragedy diminishes the person who has suffered it—but I can’t really accept the Western attitude either. So I invented a character—Yaas—gave her a great loss, and watched to see what she would do with it.

What do you hope that Jewish women readers will take away from your book? Is it different than what you hope all readers will take away?

I hope that the Western reader will gain a realistic perspective on the lives of women in most of the rest of the world. Many of the reviews of Caspian Rain mentioned that it’s a sad book, that the women’s lives are difficult and depressing. The New York Times actually implied that this couldn’t be a realistic view of life in the Middle East. Well, I have news for the New York Times: what happens in Caspian Rain is actually as good as it ever got for women in Iran; it’s a thousand times better than what happens to women in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan and parts of India and Bangladesh and some Arab countries. It’s important that the West understand this, so that we realize the enormous strides we have taken thanks to the women’s movements; so that we recognize the kind of oppression that results from orthodoxy—even Jewish orthodoxy; so that our younger women don’t take for granted the rights and freedoms that can be taken away from them so easily the minute you bring religion into government.

As for the fact that you may get sad reading the book, I think that means I’ve done my job right, that I’ve created characters and posed questions that resonate with the reader so that the outcome is important to him or her. I believe strongly that literature should be transformative—that I should have changed somehow as a result of reading a good novel. That doesn’t always mean I should feel happy at the end of the journey.

Do you have a favorite book with a Jewish lead, fiction or nonfiction, and why that book?

Herzog by Saul Bellow, because it captures so much of the ordinary failures and disappointments of the human heart. It’s a sad book, but very funny, and it isn’t afraid of giving the reader a hard time.

What kind of books would you like to see written for Jewish readers (or readers who are just interested in Judaism). Are there voids or topics you’d like to see tackled?

I’m not sure one should write literature with a specific audience in mind; that’s more like writing copy or advertisement. So to say that a specific topic or genre is written for Jewish readers or that there’s a void in that area may apply to nonfiction, but not to the novel. That said, if we take as a model books by Jewish writers where the protagonist is Jewish and where many of his or her issues are the result of Jewish cultural and social trends or influences—books by Philip Roth being the obvious example—then I would say yes, absolutely, there’s a great void out there that I would like to see filled:

What we know in the West as Jewish literature or literature with Jewish themes, I’m afraid, captures only a sliver of the Jewish experience worldwide. Yet that body of work has dominated the collective consciousness for so long that we have come to see it as the Jewish story. From the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer to Shalom Auslander’s Foreskin’s Lament published in 2007 to everything in between and after, what you have is the telling of the Western Jewish experience. That’s worlds apart from the experiences and sensibilities of Jews elsewhere—in the Middle East and Africa and India and China—and yet even in those places, even in Iran where I grew up, it is the Singers and Bellows and Gordimers that we read. It’s as much a testament to the strength of the Western Jewish voice as it is to the inability or unwillingness of Jews elsewhere to claim their own place in the literary consciousness. Simply put, we don’t write enough about ourselves and when we do, the West doesn’t take enough notice.

The reluctance to write our “Eastern” (if I may call it that) stories stems, historically, from fear of persecution and the resulting tendency to stay under the radar, keep one’s voice low, don’t air out any internal issues to the outside world. The fact that the West, especially the United States, is oblivious to what else is out there is, of course, ethnocentric, particularly on the part of Americans who read so little of the works of people elsewhere. My hope is that writers from the East will raise their voices and tell their stories, whether there’s a market for it in the United States or not.

When, in general or specifically, do you feel most Jewish in your life?

All the time. It’s like feeling (or knowing) that I’m a woman, or that I have brown eyes, or that the earth is round.

What are you working on now and when can readers expect to see it? Anything you want to say about it?

I’m working on a novel about the Iranian Jews living in the United States, what we’re like and how we’ve changed (and changed the country) 30 years after the great migration that resulted from the Islamic Revolution. It’s called The Pearl Canon. I hope it will be finished in a year’s time.

What question do you wish a journalist would ask you, and what is your answer?

Here’s one that well-meaning people always ask me, and that I would be happy to answer for any journalist: “Don’t you wish someone would make a movie out of your book?” The honest answer is, “No, I don’t think of my novels as potential films. What I hope for them is that they will be relevant, and read, ten, thirty, fifty years from now. If I wanted to make movies, I’d write screenplays.”

About the Author

Gina Nahai
Gina B. Nahai is a bestselling author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her novels have been translated into 18 languages and are taught at a number of universities and high schools nationwide. Her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Magazine, Huffingtonpost.com, and Truthdig.com. She writes a monthly column for the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. She is the recipient of a 2002 Simon Rockower Award and a finalist for an L.A. Press Club award. Caspian Rain, Nahai’s fourth novel, was published in September 2007, was also a Los Angeles Times bestseller, was named “One of the Best Books of the Year” by the Chicago Tribune, and won the Persian Heritage Foundation’s Award.

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